Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485
Albert Goldbarth’s poems are spun from an encyclopedic mind that engages odd snippets of information as well as the whole of scientific treatises. The “larger” issues have been Goldbarth’s themes, but he treats them in unique, even spectacular ways. Funny, ironic, bitter, hilarious, irreverent, sexy, serious—this list of adjectives could apply to almost every one of his poems. “A History of Civilization” is a relatively early poem. It is less experimental, more traditional, than Goldbarth’s later poems. Yet through its title and its complex structure, it predicts the poet who went on to write books with such titles as Heaven and Earth: A Cosmology (1991) and Across the Layers: Poems Old and New (1993) and to win the National Book Critics Circle Award. Goldbarth’s style developed into one of excess—excessively long sentences packed with an excess of fact, speculation, memory, data of all kinds. Images and incidents fuse, break apart, then connect again. Everything is part of a larger chaos that, in the end, belongs to an even larger order.
Whether it is like the short journey of the dust mote or the more dramatic shifting of tectonic plates, the life of any individual is insignificant when measured against eternity. History, however, creates a context and reveals significance. “A History of Civilization” peels back layers of remembered time to uncover the basic values of America, to shine the spotlight briefly on the hard work of the immigrant family before the poem veers off (or back) to the one procreative force that shapes animals and humans alike. Lives are composed of an amalgam of history, coincidence, and imagination; one goes on layering the quotidian until the past becomes so distant it needs to be reinvented.
When Goldbarth introduces the old men playing dominoes, firelight flickering on their beards “like filaments still waiting for the bulb or the phone to be invented,” he describes the scene with the benefit of hindsight, naming the technology that will pull them into the present even as it thrusts the scene into the past. But Goldbarth looks through both ends of the telescope at once. The rooms become a palimpsest, time superimposed on place, until they fuse into one story. Thus, in the way of all “stories,” history is being made this evening in the dating bar.
In the poem’s final line, “In the fern bar a hand tries a knee, as if unplanned,” the “as if” is important. It knows something of human nature. The planning is part of the age-old ritual of courtship that keeps the world spinning. This final line is also the moment when the reader becomes aware of the speaker as a shaping presence. More than an omniscient author, he is someone with a wry commentary, a point of view. If a cosmology implies a philosophy, Goldbarth’s might be simply this: In a universe so vast, people have one another.